At a Chelsea-to-Richmond boating party held sometime in the early 1950s, the Duchess of Devonshire, then a beautiful young woman of 30, met a dashing man, some five years her senior, who was dressed as a Roman gladiator and armed with a net and trident. It was a look she thought suited him.
The fancy-dress gladiator was Patrick Leigh Fermor, a former officer in Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), a covert unit that aided resistance movements throughout occupied Europe, and an up-and-coming writer best known at the time for kidnapping a German general during the war. He had crossed paths with the duchess before and remembered her clearly from a regimental ball in 1940, when she was still Deborah Mitford—the youngest of the soon-to-be-famous Mitford sisters. She was then engaged to Andrew Cavendish, a tall naval officer and younger son of the Tenth Duke of Devonshire who had no expectation of inheriting his father’s title until the war took his older brother’s life four years later. Leigh Fermor had watched the couple dance their way through the evening, "utterly rapt, eyes shut, as though in a trance." Mitford had not noticed him.
But when they met again—as duchess and gladiator—Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor struck up a friendship that has endured for more than half a century. In Tearing Haste, a collection of their letters newly available in this country, gives the impression that the conversation that started at a boating party so many summers ago has never stopped. Spanning 1954 to 2007, the volume reads like an accidental memoir of a disappearing world stretching from the manor houses of the English aristocracy to the olive groves of Greece, its people and places rendered with a kind of care that’s becoming scarce in our age of helter-skelter communication. At the same time, the book’s title, a phrase deriving from Leigh Fermor’s habit of dashing off messages "with a foot in the stirrup," captures the vigor and bustle of the lives that nourished the correspondence. I once happened upon the manuscript of a chatty letter Leigh Fermor had written in 1944 to an Englishwoman stationed in Cairo. Amusingly composed and illustrated with a witty hand-drawn cartoon, it closed with Leigh Fermor mentioning offhand that he was in hiding on occupied Crete and that an undercover runner was waiting outside to receive the communication.
In Tearing Haste is engaging from start to finish. There isn’t a dull letter among Charlotte Mosley’s selections. Even her annotations, often incorporating information from the book’s two correspondents, are as surprising as they are informative. One biographical note on the painter Augustus John includes Deborah Devonshire’s recollection of meeting him in London: "He looked me up and down and said, ‘Have you got children?’ ‘Yes.’ Another long look. ‘Did you suckle them?’" More than anything else, the collection is important as an addition to Leigh Fermor’s body of work, both because his letters constitute a larger portion of the volume and because the writing in them harmonizes with the books that established his literary reputation. But let it be said that the Duchess of Devonshire is no slouch either. Her letters, though generally shorter and less frequent than Leigh Fermor’s, share his wit and many of his interests—a fascination with language, for example, or with the byways of English and European history. She puts a charming twist on these topics while adding a few bright threads of her own to the correspondence.